Imagining Happiness in the Cards (And Probably Getting It Wrong)

You’d think that after reading The Art of Happiness, I’d completely swear off reading any books about happiness.  But no.  I generally do not believe that one bad book will completely invalidate an entire genre even though it might take me a couple years to reach for another one.  In this case, after reading Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm*, I went looking for similar recommended books online and this one was on one of those lists.  So one could say, yes, I did literally stumble upon happiness.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert** is more like a science book disguised as a self-help book.  Gilbert’s writing style is humorous and easy to digest.  But is it going to actually help anyone achieve happiness?  Maybe not.  But it would certainly make one more aware of what sorts of tricks the mind plays in order to adjust your emotional well-being.  Because the book is less about happiness and more about how crummy our brains are at trying to imagine the future.

Apparently our brains are so good at imagining things that it does so without our awareness.  Take, for instance, our vision.  There’s a blind spot in our vision but we don’t have holes in our visual field because our brains automatically fill in the spot with a reasonable guess of what should be there.  Our memories, in actuality, are pretty spotty.  When we retrieve a memory, it is mostly the key points that we remember (such as: tuna sandwich, new lunch joint, bad) and the details that we fill in at present (the sandwich smelled like a rotten egg and looked like gray goo, the bread tasted like cardboard–and the waitress was mean, too).  There are experiments that verify this.  But while, in the normal course of things, this doesn’t seem like much to worry about, this does particularly affect our perception about our future and how happy we think we might be in that future.

The problem we have with predicting the future*** is that we have the tendency to focus on the big events and gloss over the details that might happen and have as significant an impact.  You might say that you will be happier in a year when you’re on a vacation in Europe compared to now when you’re sitting in a cubicle, but your brain is only imagining all the good stuff–the walks along the Seine, the abundance of beer and buxom barmaids, and marveling at ancient ruins.  You’ve failed to take into account the details–like the fact that your clumsiness will make it more likely you’ll swim in the Seine, you’ll wake up with a tremendous hangover the next morning next to some guy you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and that you’d be spending more time waiting in lines under hundred degree weather rather than snapping your camera.  Another problem is that when we think about the future, our brains take what we know most about–which is the present–and use that to generalize the future without regard to the fact that the future is under completely different circumstances.  This is why when others try to tell an unhappy person that there will be a brighter tomorrow, the unhappy person does not believe it.  An unhappy person, at that moment, cannot conceive that they will be happier the next day because their brain is taking the present as a basis to predict the future without factoring in everything else that might happen.

While all of this is very interesting, I couldn’t help but wonder how much culture plays a role in happiness.  There is one study that Gilbert describes which involves asking Asians, Europeans, and Hispanics how happy they are at one particular moment and then asking them later how happy they remember being.  Asians reported being happier in the particular moment but remember being less happy compared to their European counterparts.  Hispanics were less happy at a particular moment but remember being more happy than the Europeans.  One could speculate that the Asians and Hispanics were unconsciously conforming to cultural stereotypes–that Asians are taught to subsume personal happiness for the good of the family while Hispanics are believed to be a happier group of people on the whole.  In another study, women were found to remember more stereotypically feminine feelings and men more stereotypically masculine feelings even though during an event, they had the same sort of feelings.  So could people alter how they remember their emotional states by changing cultural influences?  That’s difficult to say since we all internalize cultural expectations even though we’re not aware of it.

Can we out-trick our brain on our way to happiness?  People who tell themselves that they’re going to be happy end up less happy than people who let things fall where they may.  We could try just living in the present, but our brains programmed to think about what may happen next–if anything, for our own self-preservation.  And even if we experience traumatic events, most of us are resilient enough to bounce back by finding some silver lining, even if it’s just an illusion****.  Clinically depressed people, on the other hand, see reality only too well.  Happiness, apparently like a lot of other things, requires balance.  In this case, you need a balance of reality and illusion in order to be healthy emotion-wise.

So how can we predict how we will feel about something in the future?  Gilbert addresses this problem and argues that happiness can be generalized.  With experiments using emotional surrogates, subjects can predict how they will feel when experiencing a particular event if they read reports of how other people feel when they’ve already experienced the event.  The only problem with trying to convince people to pay attention to other people’s experiences is that everyone believes that they are a special snowflake.  Happiness, one can argue, is a subjective emotion.  There is no way that you can say for sure that I’m happy or sad because you aren’t in my position.  Similarly, I cannot truly tell how happy anyone else is because I am not in their situation.  The experiments with the emotional surrogates proves that this thinking is wrong. But people feel better in believing that they are unique rather than just average so they will use their faulty imaginations instead of relying on tried and true advice.

I personally feel that generalizing happiness is a very precarious position to take. I am reminded of some other research which dealt with how volunteers in a test game dealt with the notion of sharing.  Volunteers from the west react very differently than volunteers from elsewhere in the world.  Does this mean that one group is behaving normally while the other group is doing something weird?  Or is something else happening?  While you can do all the psychological experiments you want on college students in order get some sort of “norm”, it would be disingenuous at best to apply this norm to the rest of the human population–most who are definitely not college students.  A lot of things in our lives are affected by culture and environment.  As a result, we shouldn’t think that happiness is any different.

*Excellent book, by the way, if you want to learn about the history of E. coli and modern molecular biology.
**From my brief online searching, I don’t think he’s related to the author of Eat, Pray, Love except that they both appeared on a PBS documentary.
***This can be illustrated by the fact that forecasters, sci-fi writers, and psychic hotlines, more often than not, get it wrong.
****This is also why, as Gilbert describes it, the brain “cooks the facts” in order for you to continue to believe what you prefer to believe.  (This is probably also why I feel that it is hopeless to argue with certain people no matter how much evidence to the contrary I give them.)